From Gondar to Jerusalem: Finding Jewish inspiration with Ethiopian olim

After the morning prayer services in Gondar, attended by hundreds, our group visited with families. Many of these individuals have not seen their children, siblings or parents in two decades.

 New immigrants from Ethiopia land in Israel (photo credit: ALIYAH AND INTEGRATION MINISTRY)
New immigrants from Ethiopia land in Israel
(photo credit: ALIYAH AND INTEGRATION MINISTRY)

I didn’t expect to feel so close to home when I set foot in the synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, a village that could not be more different from the streets of New York where I live. But the Jewish rituals and symbols, and Hebrew tunes made me feel an instant connection with my brothers and sisters in this faraway land.

I arrived in Gondar together with dozens of leaders from Jewish Federations across the United States and Canada on a mission led by The Jewish Agency for Israel. We visited sites of importance in the history of Ethiopian Jewry and met with Ethiopians waiting – in some cases for decades – to make aliyah and reunite with their loved ones already in Israel. Together, we prayed, danced to “Am Yisrael Chai” (The Jewish people live) and sang “Hatikvah” (The hope), whose description of a millennia-old longing gaze toward Zion never seemed more poignant. We visited a Jewish cemetery and held back tears while observing the stones painted in light blue that were marked with a Magen David (Star of David), which cried out the story of the Ethiopian Jews who passed on without achieving their dreams of returning to Zion.

So many moments stood out for me during our mission. But one story, in particular, remains etched in my mind and heart.

After the morning prayer services in Gondar, attended by hundreds, our group visited with families. Many of these individuals have not seen their children, siblings or parents in two decades. I met a family of six people in their home – a one-room structure without flowing water or electricity. Asmira Bezie, the matriarch of the family, greeted us with a wide smile that radiated her excitement over our arrival. Asmira has been waiting over two decades to make aliyah, faithfully holding onto her dream that her feet would touch the earth of Zion before her days ended. She proudly pointed to a photo of her son hanging on the wall – the closest she can get to embracing him since he arrived in Israel years earlier. I didn’t need to speak a word of Amharic to understand the deep longing in her eyes.

The next day, our delegation boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight alongside 180 olim, whose lives would be transformed in just under five hours. This flight marked the resumption of aliyah from Ethiopia as part of Operation Zur Israel (Rock of Israel), carrying the first of 3,000 olim who are slated to arrive in Israel this year. Among the olim who arrived that week was Asmira, along with her children and grandchildren. On Tuesday afternoon Asmira was sitting in her one-room home, which represented her long and painful delay waiting for aliyah. Just a few days later, she was on an aliyah flight, about to embark on her new journey in Israel.

A family in Ethiopia waiting to make aliyah (credit: Courtesy / ALL ISRAEL NEWS)A family in Ethiopia waiting to make aliyah (credit: Courtesy / ALL ISRAEL NEWS)

THE PLIGHT of those Ethiopians who have waited decades for aliyah was so evident to me during my brief trip. But Wednesday afternoon was a moment of celebration over the renewal of aliyah from Ethiopia. Joining the olim as they clapped and sang when the plane landed, and took their first steps on the tarmac, and observing their tears of joy after they have shed so many tears of pain, was such a beautiful and powerful experience.

The true heroes of this aliyah are the Ethiopians, who continue to believe and sing Hatikvah day after day, year after year, hoping that one day they, too, will merit to be counted among the precious list of olim. To partner with these heroes in their journey, along with the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, is an absolute privilege.

Jewish Federations

Jewish Federations rightfully take pride in their commitment to facilitating Ethiopian aliyah across decades. We have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to support nearly 100,000 Ethiopian Jews on their journey to Zion and in their absorption once in Israel. As I told the olim when we landed in Israel, Jewish Federations will continue to support them as they begin their new lives in Israel and take pride in their accomplishments, and that “no matter what the challenges that lie ahead, always know that you are never alone”.

While it is sometimes easier to summarize what we make possible from the sheer numbers of olim, for me it is essential to understand how we are touching each individual, one life at a time. What I will carry with me is the look in Asmira’s eyes when she told us that she would be boarding a plane to Israel that week, and the knowledge that she will spend the next holiday with her son in Israel, that her grandchildren will learn Hebrew in a Jewish Agency for Israel absorption center and that future generations not yet born in her family will grow up as Israelis.

Jews around the globe are connected to one another, whether we are in New York, Jerusalem, Kyiv or Gondar. We all have a responsibility to help each other in our moments of need. This is the power of Jewish philanthropy to change one life at a time. This is the dream we are helping to make possible.

Get involved by connecting with your local Federation or by visiting www.jewishfederations.org.

The writer is chair of Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel and Overseas Committee.